Understanding heart cells

It is pretty clear what gets Dr Matthew Daniels excited: ‘A third of people die of cancer, and a third of people die from cardiovascular disease. How can you do medicine without wanting to try and make an impact on that?’. Dr Daniels is a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Oxford, but he has also held one of the Academy’s Starter Grants for Clinical Lecturers.

The starter grant has been a tremendous enabler for me,’ Dr Daniels explained. ‘It comes as a badge of approval from big funding bodies, and it’s held in high regard by senior academic clinicians.’ The Academy’s scheme has been running since 2008 and has supported 194 Clinical Lecturers across nine rounds of funding, with grants totalling c£5.5M. The funding comes from a consortium of research organisations – the Wellcome Trust, the MRC, the British Heart Foundation, Prostate Cancer UK and Arthritis Research UK.

The Academy manages the funding, and it is our Fellows that provide expert comment on the applications and sit on the selection panel. But that is not the only support that the Academy provides. We run a mentoring scheme that links grant holders and other Clinical Lecturers with an Academy Fellow. ‘That has been very useful,’ said Dr Daniels. ‘It has allowed me to see academic medicine in a new way, removed from the day-to-day preoccupations, which can become a little myopic.

Matthew explained how his project was going. ‘We are taking skin cells from patients with inherited heart disease and using a couple of tricks to turn them first into stem cells, so they live forever, and then into heart cells so we can see how they work.’ It is clear from talking to him that it is not easy to study living, beating cells. ‘My lab uses combinations of chemical dyes, and light emitting proteins first found in jellyfish, to show what is happening in real-time, without killing the cell,’ he said.

There is no such thing as a typical day when you work in research. Dr Daniels leaves his house at 6.30 am to work on his research project, before his clinical activity starts at 8.00 am. The work is very varied. ‘On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I am in the catheter lab, mainly closing holes in the heart using trans-catheter devices. On Friday morning I have an inherited cardiac conditions clinic. Mondays and Thursdays are my dedicated research time, but I usually try to have things on the go so that if there is an hour free somewhere I can go back to the lab and make progress.’

One of the things that mentors can really help with is managing the balance between clinical training, research work and life outside the hospital. For most clinical lecturers, life is a constant juggling act, and Dr Daniels is no exception. ‘I try and finish before six so I can get home and play with my children for an hour or so before bedtime,’ he explains. But that is not the end of his day. ‘I spend about an hour a day processing data after they are asleep.

He has ambitious aims for his research. ‘We want to understand how the genetic mistakes that the patient has inherited causes their heart cells to misbehave, and why this ultimately causes disease,’ he explained. ‘We hope to identify new drugs to change the outcome for the patients.

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